The Baileys’ Women’s Prize for Fiction Shadow Panel Shortlist

After four weeks of reading and discussion, our shadow panel have decided upon the following shortlist. Like the official judges, we will be re-reading our choices and deciding upon a winner at the beginning of June. The official shortlist is announced this evening; we’re looking forward to seeing how it compares.

If you click the covers of the novels, they will take you to my reviews.







Pleasantville – Attica Locke

Pleasantville is a neighbourhood in Houston, Texas, built in 1949 “specifically for Negro families of means and class”. But it became much more than that when the middle-class black families marched:

…they marched on city hall, the school board, even the Department of Public Works, holding out the collective votes of a brand-new bloc as a bargaining chip to politicians previously reluctant to consider the needs of a new Negro middle class, and sealing, in the process, the neighbourhood’s political power, which would become legend over the next four decades.


The story takes place in 1996 in the run-up to Houston’s mayoral election, the results of which might bring Alex Hathorne to office as the city’s first black mayor. As the novel begins the situation is quickly complicated by two events: the first is the abduction of a teenage girl, following a stint distributing campaign leaflets door-to-door in Pleasantville; the second is a break-in at Jay Porter’s office.

Since we last saw Jay in Black Water Rising, he’s taken on a huge civil case against Cole Oil Industries and bought a dilapidated house to use as an office. When he arrives there having been alerted to the break-in, he waits in his car for the cops to arrive. Locke uses the scene to comment upon police treatment of black men.

The officers pulled to a stop at an angle that brought the front end of their cruiser to rest nearly at Jay’s feet at the curb, its headlights hitting him square in the chest. He instinctively raised his hands.

“Porter,” he said, loud and clear. “This is my place.”

Once the police have searched the building, found it empty, filled out an incident report and left, Jay hears someone upstairs. He finds a nineteen or twenty-year-old male in his conference room. After the kid kicks the remaining pieces of glass from the frame of the window he’s broken, Jay has the opportunity – legally – to shoot him. But he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t shoot this kid in the back.

Currently, Jay’s only case is Pleasantville v. ProFerma Labs, a case which has come from two explosions at ProFerma’s chemical plant that threatened to burn Pleasantville to the ground. Jay assumed it would be over quickly but ProFerma still haven’t made a serious settlement offer. Jay’s down to the one case because of his home-life: Bernie’s dead and he has two children, fifteen-year-old Ellie and ten-year-old Ben, to raise alone. Soon though, Jay’s caught up in trying to discover the whereabouts of the missing girl, Alicia Nowell. Two other girls, Deanne Duchon and Tina Wells, also went missing from Pleasantville, one in 1994, the other in 1995. In both cases, the girls were found dead six days after their abductions. While investigating any links to the earlier cases knowing time is against the girl and the community, Jay discovers there’s someone watching him, someone driving a stolen Nissan Z. As the story unravels, all the threads become entwined with the mayoral race at the centre.

In Pleasantville, Locke considers who really runs an election campaign: a matter of business and money – who pays for the campaigns, who dictates strategy – but ultimately, how low people are prepared to go in their desperation for power. She clearly ties some of the strategies used in Pleasantville to win voters to the campaign for the Bush/Gore election in 2000 when it came down to a handful of votes across the country. It’s a scenario that could be bone dry in a less exciting writer’s hands, but Locke knows how to tie the personal with the political and does so both with the Hathorne family and Jay’s own situation.

The novel has real pace to it, twist and turns every few pages none of which are either predictable or implausible and this alone would mark Locke as an excellent political thriller writer. However, the fact that she writes about black communities; that her characters are almost all black or Hispanic; that while her stories couldn’t be transposed to a white community, her characters are every bit as rounded, human, good, bad and changeable as novels peopled with only white characters, makes her work stand out in a block of pale, stereotyped tales.

Pleasantville is an intelligent, rip-roaring insight into the political process and an astute look at the dynamics of family – blood or created – and how they change following significant life events. Attica Locke is a superb writer and fast becoming one of my personal favourites.


Thanks to Serpent’s Tail for the review copy.

The Anatomist’s Dream – Clio Grey

‘It’s a taupe,’ announced the doctor, poking at the lump with which a scratchy yellow finger, ‘a French tumour they call it, though couldn’t rightly tell you why. Most unusual – got a bit of hair growing on it too, see here?

Several strands grew, wet-wisped, from a lump the size and shape of a duck’s egg at the bottom of the baby’s head.

‘Might kill him,’ the doctor carried on with scientific stoicism. ‘But probably not, most likely grow a-pace with the rest of him. My goodness though, he does rather resemble the back end of a baboon, don’t you think?’

Philbert is born with a ‘monstrous head’. His mother, who had already named the daughter she thought she was pregnant with, rejects him, returning to work and leaving him with the woman next door. Eventually abandoned by his mother – who runs away with her French lover – and his heartbroken father, Philbert is brought up by Frau Kranz, the neighbour.

The much-anticipated arrival of a carnival in town coincides with Frau Kranz’s realisation that she is dying and that the rest of the town are sharpening their knives, their eyes on Philbert’s pet pig, Kroonk. She sends ‘her Little Maus’ to the fair, anticipating that their love of the unusual will guarantee Philbert a role.


Philbert travels with the fair, making friends with several of the characters, until the day Kwert arrives. Kwert is a ‘Tospirologist and Teller of Signs’. When he places his hands on Philbert’s taupe, Philbert sees scenes from his childhood that he can’t possibly remember.

‘I feel great things for you, Philbert,’ Kwert whispered […] ‘There are many things to come, my little Philbert. I see the shadows of yesterday and tomorrow rising up around you, and it will be hard for you to find your way. But if you’ll grant it, I’ll guide you through the start of your journey and your achievements will be of great wonder.’

What Kwert doesn’t tell Philbert is that before these ‘achievements […] of great wonder’, there will be a number of difficult and dangerous situations which will change Philbert forever.

The Anatomist’s Dream is a tale of how someone’s difference can cause remarkable situations for them and those who come into contact with them. It considers the political situation of the time, which Philbert inadvertently becomes involved in, and the consequences of challenging the status quo.

Philbert’s story is an interesting one – at times it reminded me of Frankenstein – but there were points, particularly in the second half of the book, where there was just too much going on. Events came thick and fast with a huge cast of characters whom I found difficult to distinguish from each other and the plot, which at its core involved a journey, felt as though it was going in a loop rather than forwards. Essentially the novel does loop round as Philbert finds his way back to the fair; it was these sections set in the carnival which I found the strongest. They helped form Philbert and then became indicative of how much he’d changed.

The Anatomist’s Dream touches on themes of belonging, politics and religion. It’s uneven in the telling but nevertheless an interesting concept with an unusual protagonist.


Thanks to Myrmidon for the review copy.

The Book of Memory – Petina Gappah

Until the reprieve that Vernah is fighting for comes, if it comes at all, I write this in the shadow of the gallows. If the Department of Public Prosecution and the Department of Prisons have their way, I will swing from a rope and hang until my neck lengthens to breaking point or it snaps and my bowels open and my life is extinct and I am given a pauper’s funeral and an unmarked grave.

Memory is a category D prisoner in Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison in Harare, Zimbabwe. Convicted of killing a white man, as she waits for her death sentence to be carried out, she writes her story down for Melinda Carter, a Washington based journalist.


Memory was born into poverty in the Mufakose township in Harare:

We were poor without knowing it. There was nothing ennobling or romantic or life-affirming about our poverty. It just was. And you could say that we did not know just how poor we were because everyone else was the same. We accepted the simple order of our lives in the ignorance that other, richer lives were possible.

Memory relates stories of her childhood, her brother and sisters, her parents. Everything she tells the reader is underpinned by two things: that her parents sold her to a white academic, Lloyd Hendricks, whose murder she now stands accused of and that she is an albino and, therefore, treated differently. She tells us of the attitude of the children she grew up with, commenting that the papers focused on her condition in the initial reports of the murder:

Their attitude was implicitly rooted in the language itself. Bofu is in noun class five, denoting things, just like benzi, the word for a mad person. Chirema, like a chimumumum, is in noun class seven, also denoting things, objects, lifeless objects or incomplete, deficient persons. But murungudunhu is heavy with meaning. As a murungudunhu, I am a black woman who is imbued not with the whiteness of murungu, of privilege, but of dunhu, of ridicule and fakery, a ghastly whiteness.

What’s interesting, as the book and Memory’s story unravels, is that her sale to Lloyd Hendricks is not as sinister as I was expecting it to be. I was braced for a tale of abuse but what Lloyd actually gives Memory is an education and a place in a privileged white society few have access to. Gappah exploits the two parts of Memory’s skin colour – the condition that makes me black but not black, white but not white – to show two very different lifestyles being led in the same Zimbabwean capital. Regardless, however, both sides carry dark secrets which have to be hidden from society.

The novel considers race, colonialism, class, gender and memory. The fourteen category D prisoners whom Memory spends most of her time with are mentioned throughout the novel in relation to their daily lives and the prison conditions. We are told near the beginning of the novel what their crimes consist of but Gappah largely puts these aside as she writes about women who are human beings above all. As for Memory’s memory, the big question, of course, is whether it’s reliable or not and how much does she really know about her childhood?

The Book of Memory is a gripping tale of a life which led to death row. Devoid of sensationalism, Gappah focuses on how universal themes and ideas affect individuals on a daily basis. While she grapples with these themes, they are mostly only present in the context of the story and it’s perfectly possible to read the novel purely as an interesting tale of two sets of lives. A multi-layered, fascinating tale. The best type of novel, I find. The Book of Memory is a gem.

A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding – Jackie Copleton

A man named Hideo Wantanabe appears on the doorstep of Amaterasu Takahashi in Pennsylvania claiming to be her grandson. But he can’t be as Amaterasu’s daughter and grandson perished in the atomic bomb which was dropped on Nagasaki on the 9th August, 1945.

No, I am not haunted by how she died but why. If I am to be the only remaining teller of this tale, what and how much can I admit to myself and to others? Should I begin with this acknowledgement: my daughter might still be here today if it had not been for me.

Amaterasu goes on to tell a tale of forbidden love between her teenager daughter and Sato, a doctor friend of her husband. Many secrets about the past, including Amaterasu’s childhood and life before she married her husband, Kenzo, are revealed.


A couple of weeks ago, I said there’s usually one book on the Bailey’s Prize list I really dislike. This year I’m afraid there’s two. I found the scenario implausible and the writing oddly stilted. I had an issue with the whole novel stemming from the mother’s guilt and shame; why do women always have to feel guilty?

The structure was also a problem: every chapter began with an extract from An English Dictionary of Japanese Culture which was purely for a Western audience with no knowledge of Japanese culture and meant that the reader was jerked out of the story at the beginning of every chapter. As the chapters are only short, this exacerbated the problem. The story was told from Amaterasu’s point-of-view but as there were many things she couldn’t know diary entries from her daughter, Yuko, and letters from her daughter’s lover/Kenzo’s friend, Sato, were built into the narrative. However, the diary and the letters never stood alone, they were sandwiched between narrative from Amaterasu in which she continued to describe events she could only have known about second-hand. Again this had the effect of taking me out of the story – I never forgot that I was being told a tale someone had made up. Disappointing.


Thanks to Hutchinson Books for the review copy.

Ruby – Cynthia Bond

Inside the old house Ruby was sleeping, which was rare. Ruby did not sleep – much. For her mind tangled like a fine gold chain, knotted, she was certain, beyond all repair. Still she tried each day to trace the links, only to lose them again and again.

Ruby Bell has returned to Liberty Township, Texas from New York City and become the talk of the town.

She wore gray like rain clouds and wandered the red roads in bared feet. Calluses as thick as boot leather. Hair caked with mud. Blackened nails as if she had scratched the slate of night. Her acres of legs carrying her, arms swaying like a loose screen. Her eyes the ink of sky, just before the storm.

It’s well known that Ruby’s mad: she pees in the street and has sex with many of the men in Liberty, but Ruby’s caught the attention of one man who wants to treat her differently; Ephram Jennings is planning to bring Ruby one of his sister’s white lay angel cakes. No one notices Ephram, ‘he was just another thick horse brown man with a ratted cap and a stooped gait’, but Ruby does.


When Ruby lies for three hours in a stagnant pool left by Hurricane Beulah:

Ephram Jennings saw that Ruby had become the still water. He saw her liquid deep skin, her hair splayed by onyx river vines.

As rain began to fall upon her, Ephram saw her splash and swell and spill out of the small ravine. Ephram Jennings knew. That is when Ruby lifted her head like a rising wave and noticed Ephram. In that moment the two knowings met.

The first third of the book concerns Ephram’s journey to Ruby’s house. It’s interspersed with Ephram’s story – how his sister, Celia, has raised him since he was eight and she was fourteen when their mother was incarcerated in Dearing State Mental-Colored Ward and their father, the Reverend Jennings, went preaching on the road for ten months of the year, as well as tales from Ruby and Ephram’s childhood including one about them and Ruby’s friend, Maggie, visiting Ma Tante, the local ‘witch doctor’.

“You was born with a glaze over your face. Come out the womb with the white gel what let you see into the gray world. Yes?”

Ruby just barely nodded in agreement.

Ma Tante reached out and grabbed Ruby’s right hand. She turned over her palm and pointed. “You got da mystic star. There.” She took her other hand. “There too. Lord child you ain’t nothing but a doorway. How many haints you count at your heels?”

Ruby stopped dead. It was the first time anyone had seen. It meant she couldn’t pretend it was a game anymore, or a piece of a bad dream.

Finally she answered, “Three.”

“Your count be off. And more on the way.”

The adult Ruby’s tortured by the ghosts which live with her whilst she tries to care for them in a way they weren’t cared for during their lives. As she gives over her faculties to them, the men of the town rape her repeatedly, congratulating themselves on finding a woman who’ll let them do anything they want.

She simply kept her limbs numb and her eyes empty as she had since she was fifteen. Since she was twelve. Seven. Six. Five. When the first man had ripped the cotton of her panties, explaining that this is what happens to very bad little girls. When the first man had sun smiled, “Training time…”

Ruby is very much about what men do to women: how they control them through sex and shame and religion; how they pit women against each other, using the age old divide and rule formula. As the story unfolds, the connection between Ruby and Ephram becomes clearer – his sister, Celia, playing a key part in both the connection when they were children and the attempt to keep Ephram from Ruby as an adult.

Ruby’s story also highlights the intersections of gender, class and race in the parts of the novel which recall her time in New York City. There it is men and white women who are responsible for the abuse she experiences.

All of this makes the novel sound as though it’s incredibly bleak and it is bleak but there’s also an underlying thread of hope; it’s carried in Ephram but also in Ruby herself and the care she administers to the haints. The novel’s also lifted by Bond’s beautiful use of language, something I hope is evident in the quotations I’ve chosen – I highlighted many many more as I was reading. In the USA, Ruby was chosen by Oprah for her book club and I’m astonished more people in the UK aren’t talking about this novel. Ruby is an incredible book, one I wanted to start reading again from the beginning as I turned the final page.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers

Rosemary Harper wakes up in a pod travelling through open space to begin a new job under a new identity – she’s bribed a government official for the latter. The job is on the Wayfarer, captained by Ashby. Rosemary’s going to be a clerk on his ship which builds wormholes in space: ‘the intergalactic passageways that ran through the Galactic Commons’.

The Wayfarer’s crew consists of Corbin, human, ‘a talented algaeist and a complete asshole’; Jenks and Kizzy, both humans and the ship’s techs; Sissix, an Aandrisk and the pilot; Dr Chef, a Grum and the cook and medic; Ohan, a Sianat Pair and a Navigator; Lovey, a sentient AI and the ship’s communication interface.

The novel’s set far in the future, long after humans have taken up residence on other planets:

The majority of living Humans were descended from the Exodus Fleet, which had sailed far beyond the reaches of their ancestral sun. Many, like Ashby, had been born within the very same homesteaders that had belonged to the original Earthen refugees. His tight black curls and amber skin were the result of generations of mingling and mixing aboard the giant ships. Most Humans, whether space born or colony kids, shared that nationless Exodan blend.


Just after Rosemary arrives on the Wayfarer, Ashby’s told to ‘watch out for some interesting work coming down the line’. The job turns out to be creating a wormhole between Hedra Ka, home of the Toremi, back to Central Space. The job pays well as one of the Toremi clans has just been granted Galactic Commons membership. This hasn’t happened before as the clans ‘came across as vicious and incomprehensible […] they had been industriously killing each other for decades’.

Most of the book is taken up by the journey to Hedra Ka and the preparation needed for the job. Along the way, we discover Rosemary’s secret, learn an incredible amount about the individuals in the crew, find out about life in the future and witness several inter-species relationships.

The novel’s about relationships – familial, romantic and friendly. Chambers has fun considering what it means to be human and where our failings lie:

‘Do you ever get tired of Humans?[…]I’m definitely tired of them today,’ Sissix said, laying her head back. ‘I’m tired of their fleshy faces. I’m tired of their smooth fingertips. I’m tired of how they pronounce their Rs. I’m tired of their inability to smell anything. I’m tired of how clingy they get around kids that don’t even belong to them. I’m tired of how neurotic they are about being naked. I want to smack every single one of them around until they realise how needlessly complicated they make their families and their social lives and their – their everything.’

Dr Chef nodded. ‘You love them and you understand them, but sometimes you wish they – and me and Ohan, too, I’m sure – could be more like ordinary people.’

Chambers also uses her cast of characters to explore gender, pronouns, bodies, politics and religion without ever losing sight of the story or dropping the pace of the plot.

When the Bailey’s Prize longlist was first announced, there were two books I didn’t think I’d enjoy at all: one was Geraldine Brooks’ The Secret Chord, the other was The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. (I might be a Doctor Who fan, but I read very little Science Fiction.) I was delighted to be proved completely wrong. I thoroughly enjoyed this book from the first page to the last. It’s well-paced with plenty of twists and turns, some of which I didn’t see coming at all; the characters are fascinating and their relationships intriguing, while the themes explore many concerns affecting current society. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is a cracking read and I’ll be in the queue for a copy of the sequel later this year.


Thanks to Hodder for the review copy.

Whispers Through a Megaphone – Rachel Elliott

Miriam Delaney hasn’t left the house for three years, Not after what she did. At the beginning of the novel, she tosses a coin. Heads, she re-enters the world. Three heads thrown later, she comes up with a plan.

  1. Do something I am afraid of. Apparently this builds confidence (have yet to see evidence of this – will be an interesting experiment)
  2. Spend next few days clearing out house – get rid of mother’s things
  3. Leave house next week

She begins by writing a list of things she is afraid of and gets to tackling number thirteen: Naked cleaning.

How scary can it be?

Answer: that depends on your childhood.

It depends on whether, at the age of eight, you found your mother sweeping the floor of the school corridor wearing nothing but a pair of trainer socks. (Had she planned to go for a run and slipped into insanity seconds after putting on her socks? Can madness descend that quickly, like thunder, like a storm?)[…]What made the situation worse, even harder for Miriam to comprehend, was the fact that her mother didn’t even work as a cleaner.

As Miriam builds up to leaving the house the events of the past which haunt her – many of which are to do with her mother – and how she’s managed for the three years in which she hasn’t left the house are slowly revealed.


Whispers Through a Megaphone isn’t just Miriam’s story though, it’s also that of Ralph Swoon and his wife, Sadie. We meet Ralph ensconced in a cabin in the woods with a cat named Treacle.

Feline logic told her that he had dragged himself here to die. Why else would he have turned up in the woods at 11.30p.m. on 4th August with no bag, no possessions, just a wallet, a phone and a guitar.

But the cat was wrong.

He hadn’t come here to die.

Ralph’s a psychotherapist who knows ‘less about his own desires these days than his clients knew about theirs’. He’s been particularly confused since he glimpsed his first love, Julie Parsley, in the local B&Q and promptly walked into a giant garden gnome. Having had their now sixteen-year-old twin boys when he and Sadie were twenty, their relationship’s changed somewhat:

They were fine, they were happy, he could lose her any moment. This was the wordless core of their relationship, known and unknown. Sixteen years later they argued all the time and the sight of her Mini pulling into the driveway, its back seat covered with newspapers and unopened poetry anthologies, had begun to make him queasy.

As Ralph tries to figure out what he wants, Sadie begins to question a decision she made as a student and starts to explore alternatives to her current lifestyle.

Inevitably, Ralph and Miriam meet midway through the story at which point, they tentatively try to help each other through their respective periods of hurt and confusion.

Whispers Through a Megaphone explores the power the past holds over the present, particularly with regards to relationships – romantic and familial. It considers decisions made by other people, particularly Miriam’s mother, which have long resounding impacts on those around them and decisions the protagonists made themselves which, years later, they’re starting to consider the impact of and whether the alternative is now a better option.

The style and tone of the novel reminded me of two books from early 2015: Lost & Found by Brooke Davis and Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper. However, I preferred Whispers Through a Megaphone due to the very dark undertone which comes to the surface in pockets throughout the book.

I found the novel, as a whole, hugely enjoyable. There are moments I would’ve liked to have seen questioned or explored further, such as the early revelation that the headmaster who took Miriam’s naked mother home had sex with her on the kitchen table and then began an affair with her. Although there were consequences for this later on, his taking advantage of a woman with mental health problems wasn’t raised. However, I was largely engrossed by the book. I thought the structure – as it moved between Miriam and Ralph’s stories – and the pace at which secrets and choices were revealed were well timed. The characters were interesting: I was particularly fascinated by Sadie who (bar Miriam’s mother) is the least likeable but the most rounded of the cast. Whispers Through a Megaphone is an offbeat, entertaining read.


Thanks to Pushkin Press for the review copy.


The Secret Chord – Geraldine Brooks

“I should do many things I have not done and I should not have done many of the things I have done. My heart, Natan, is as hollow as a gourd. If I am a man, as you say, then I deserve to be ranked with the lowest of men.”

The Secret Chord is the story of King David, the shepherd boy who slayed the giant Goliath and went on to lead Israel. His story’s told from the perspective of Natan, the seer, who becomes his guide and confidant prior to him becoming king.


The novel begins with Natan going to the middle-aged David and asking to set down his story so the memories of his feats will be preserved. David agrees but, to Natan’s surprise, declines to give his own account, sending Natan to see those who knew him prior to his and Natan’s relationship. His choices are also surprising: his estranged first wife, Mikhal, ‘for whom his very name was bile’; Shammah, David’s only remaining older brother, and Nizvet bat Adael, a woman who is part of Shammah’s household.

I had heard the stories, of course. There is not a person living in the Land who has not. But the stories that grow up around a king are strong vines with a fierce grip. They pull life from whatever surfaces they cling to, while the roots, maybe, wither and rot until you cannot find the place from which the seed of the vine has truly sprung. That was my task: to uncover those earliest roots. And he had directed me to the seedbed.

The portrait that they and Natan paint is one of a boy, and later a man, who is brave, intelligent and fierce but also powerful, ruthless and unforgiving. The story of how he and Natan meet is a good example of this: Natan has fallen asleep tending his father’s flock of sheep and goats. When they wander into David’s camp, David prevents his men from preparing stew and rounds the animals up. He tells Natan what he has done and sends a message to Natan’s father, via Natan, that David and his men would be glad of provisions. Natan’s father refuses, calling David a traitor to the king.

At dawn I walked through my father’s blood and stood face-to-face with his killer. David had come in the dark, swift and silent. He slew my father and my uncle Barack with the dispatch of a slaughter man attending to his trade.

It’s at this point that Natan speaks his first prophecy and becomes part of David’s band of men.

The novel details the battles, the shifting allegiances, the power struggles, Natan’s prophesies and the coming-of-age of David’s sons. It also gives voice to David’s wives, detailing his treatment of them, the part they play in his quest for power and, particularly in the case of Batsheva, the misconceptions that surround their tales. For me, the reframing of the women’s stories, from tales of seduction to those that demonstrate the brutality of a powerful man are what makes this novel stand out from many historical fiction texts. Although the narrator is male, Brooks ensures that the women’s stories are foregrounded where they fit into the overall narrative arc.

Indeed, in most of our important histories, it’s rare enough for wives to be named, never mind the state of their affections noted. So I set it down as she had requested.

Yesterday I said that the Bailey’s Prize longlist always produces a couple of gems and this is another of them. I briefly heard of Geraldine Brooks when March won the Pulitzer but never ventured as far as reading any of her work. After the delight that is the mature, gripping, beautifully written The Secret Chord, I’ll be treating myself to her back catalogue.


Thanks to Little, Brown for the review copy.

The Glorious Heresies – Lisa McInerney

Maureen had just killed a man.

She didn’t mean to do it. She’d barely need to prove that, she thought; no one would look at a fifty-nine-year-old slip of a whip like her and see a killer[…]Her face had a habit of sliding into a scowl between intentional expressions, but looking like a string of piss wasn’t enough to have Gardaí probing your perversions. There’d have been no scandals in the Church at all, she thought, if the Gardaí had ever had minds honed so.

Although Maureen’s ‘shit at cleaning’, clearing up the dead body’s not going to be too difficult seen as her son, Jimmy Phelan, is Cork’s top gangster. Recently reunited, Maureen gave birth to James, as she’d named him, in England in the 1970s. There she’d relinquished her ‘terrible deed’ to his grandparents in Knock, until, as an adult, he tracked her down. Finding her living in poverty in a London tenement, he brought her home to Cork and installed her in an apartment by the river. An apartment housed in a building he’d previously run as a brothel.

Needing to keep the death quiet, Jimmy enlists alcoholic Tony Cusack to dispose of the body. Unfortunately, Tony knows the identity of the dead man and lets his name slip in front of Maureen.


Georgie, girlfriend of Robbie O’Donovan – for that’s the name of the dead man, begins to worry on the third day of his absence.

So it wasn’t that she feared that Robbie might be dead, because his death was the first logical conclusion. He wouldn’t have run away because he had no one left to run to; they were, in all sorts of ways, the last two people on earth.

She looked for his corpse with determined detachment. If she found him bloodied or bloated that’d be something to deal with, but right now all she needed to do was her duty. She hunted for him. Alleyways, doorways, up the ways, down the ways. Nothing. It was like he’d been plucked out of existence, the way you’d flick a crumb off your shirt.

And then there’s Georgie’s confidant and Tony’s next-door-neighbour, Tara Duane.

Some of the girls whispered that she was the city’s most devious madam, taking pay from all manner of third parties as she spun the streets. Georgie wasn’t sure Tara was practical enough to be a madam. Instead she wondered if she wasn’t just a creep, feigning aid like she feigned smiles.

Tara’s certainly keen to know everyone’s business, particularly that of Tony Cusack.

Although all of these characters play a part in the tangled web that makes up the plot of The Glorious Heresies, the story really belongs to Cusack’s eldest son, Ryan.

As the novel begins, Ryan enters the family home with his new girlfriend, Karine D’Arcy.

He left the boy outside its own front door. Farewell to it, and good luck to it. He wasn’t going to feed it anymore; from here on in it would be squared shoulders and jaws, and strong arms and best feet forward. He left the boy a pile of mangled, skinny limbs and stepped through the door a newborn man…

Fifteen-year-old Ryan loses his virginity, starts his first long term relationship and begins to step out from the shadow of his alcoholic, violent, widowed father. The Glorious Heresies is Ryan’s coming-of-age story, taking place over five years following Robbie O’Donovan’s death as the consequences of Maureen’s actions unravel for the whole cast of characters.

Peopled by gangsters, alcoholics, pimps, dealers and sex workers, it would’ve been easy for McInerney to cast judgement upon her characters but part of the strength of the novel lies in her avoidance of this. The characters are fully rounded, demonstrating moments of understanding, empathy and kindness as well as anger, violence and criminality. The narrative viewpoint moves between the characters allowing us glimpses of their motivation and the events which have moulded them.

The Bailey’s Prize longlist always produces a couple of gems I hadn’t read (and sometimes hadn’t heard of) prior to the list’s announcement; The Glorious Heresies is one of this year’s. The writing fizzes: We’re all gods when we fucking feel like it; ‘God is great that way. He has massive ears and a mouth sewn shut’; Funny how memories you’d swear burnt tattoos on you dissolved into nothing when you needed to examine them. The characters are interesting and their interweaved lives produce some interesting plot twists – Maureen, in particular, is brilliant; her feminist rants are a real highlight of the novel. But above all, The Glorious Heresies is a bloody entertaining read.


Thanks to John Murray Press for the review copy.